Staying true to your roots 

March 5, 2018

‘Be yourself’ is a mantra that has served Levi Roots well. His appearance, complete with guitar, on Dragons’ Den not only awarded him with business support and investment into his Reggae Reggae sauce – but also the affections of an entire nation who bought his Caribbean-inspired creations in their droves. Diversifying into ready meals, drinks, sandwiches, pizzas and now restaurants – Levi is seen as the godfather of Caribbean cuisine in the UK. Last month, the charismatic Rastafarian was a guest speaker at the launch of Scaleup NorthEast in Newcastle, where he captivated the audience with his business stories and advice. Afterwards, he talked to Alison Cowie about how he developed a winning brand that, first and foremost, celebrates his passions

I’ve read that you began selling your sauces at The London Notting Hill Carnival in the 90s but you didn’t brand them until 2005. What led you to create the Reggae Reggae brand and what impact did it make? 

Even though we’d done the carnival for many years, I suddenly spotted a gap in the market. It was a lightbulb moment for me. I was busy running my record label and touring around the world but I thought it’s time to make way for my second passion – food.

But the key thing was merging my two passions – music and food – because it would have been terrible if I’d put the guitar down completely. That’s my heart and soul. It’s what makes me tick and makes me feel beautiful. I put these two things together and that was the magic moment.

What was your ambition for your Reggae Reggae sauce in those early days? 

I established the business with my children and our aim was to start with a small factory somewhere and, hopefully, after a couple of years, build the business up. Then Dragons’ Den happened and that all changed.

When you applied for Dragons’ Den, did you ever expect the impact the show would make on you and your business? 

It was a total shock. I thought I was rubbish on the show! I got my numbers wrong and I was sweating profusely. I did all the things that most people do when they go on Dragons’ Den and don’t get investment – all that and more. But I think people loved the honesty. I was in a corner and I just said, ‘aAtually, I can make a great sauce but I’m crap at everything in business – please teach me’.

What happened after the show? 

For me, I had the fear factor. I knew that I had the public’s attention because everyone was lording me all over the place. I had the mentor in Peter Jones and I had the investment but I kept asking myself, can I really do this? Can I make it work?

How did you deal with that fear? 

My way of dealing with it was just to be me. I didn’t try to be this ‘proper’ business person. I remained Levi Roots, with the music, the quirkiness, the swagger and the style. Being myself has been the best way to manage the fame and the massive growth of the business.

As your company has developed, and products diversified, has it been difficult to ‘be yourself’? 

Absolutely not. That’s why I say to people, ‘Do a business that you’re passionate about’, because in those moments when things are not working and are not right – usually at the offset of the business – you need to be enjoying it. You need to be passionate and still have the enthusiasm to get out of bed and carry on. For me, it was always about the music and food. These two things that I could never get away from. It was the only thing that I really knew. I think that if I’d discovered another business, another opportunity, I wouldn’t have been able to stay focused in the way that I did.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

In hindsight, you think you would change a lot of things. I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my life, including the bad stuff [Levi has twice spent time in prison] but then you realise, this is what has made me who I am. It was painful to go through these things, and I wouldn’t want to go through them again, but it’s part of my journey. I look back at the bad times when I was in Brixton and got into trouble, and I think, that’s part of what the [Reggae Reggae] brand is. When people see me, they don’t think he looks as though he’s had a nice, lovely life. I’m a Rastaman and I’ve been through a lot of struggles. You can either own that or not. I’ve owned it and I think that’s been part of the appeal. I say to people ‘Stay away from X,Y and Z’, not because I’ve read about them, but I’ve been through it.

You spend a lot of time visiting schools and talking about your business journey. Do you think more young people aspire to be entrepreneurs nowadays? 

Absolutely. Times have changed. There’s an army of young people out there who are ready to start their own businesses. When I go out and talk in schools, I see how kids are thinking. They’re very entrepreneurial-minded and business focused. But it’s important to find someone who can put the pieces together.

There are not enough people who are willing to come out of the woodwork and mentor. But there are the people who really need it. Those people who don’t go Oxbridge or might not know where to get investment from. We need to support more entrepreneurs from a grass roots level.

What advice do you give someone who wants to start a business? 

Two things. The first is have a business plan, but I don’t mean a business plan in the traditional sense. It’s about getting yourself ready – a plan within yourself. For instance, when I started out, my email address was something like ‘rub-a-dub-dub-in-the-club’. I remember going to my Brixton Barclays to ask for a loan. I was giving the bank manager my details and, although he didn’t say anything, I could see he was cringing at my email address. You need to fix up your own self and get ready for business. The second thing is to focus, because once you’ve got an idea and a business plan, one of the most difficult things for young people is to stay ‘in the eye of the tiger’ and focus within the business. Especially nowadays, when you’d got so many other entities and influences coming at you. One of the key things that make businesses fall down before they start to grow and make money is a lack of focus. It’s difficult, but if you can get over that, the rest will be easy.

Do you think your business brand changed? 

It’s changed massively. At first, the values revolved around Levi Roots. It was a very personal brand and it was about building a business for my family and me. Now it’s about Caribbean food. We’ve realised that I am the ‘keeper’ of Caribbean food in the UK, as the main name out there for this cuisine. Restaurants are popping up all over the country – I’ve got my own restaurant now, too.

Caribbean food has arrived [across the UK] because of a silly Rasta man with a guitar. People are recognising it.

When I talk about the food and when I look at the scope of where my business can get to, it’s not just about the Levi Roots brand anymore; it’s about telling the story of one of the most diverse cuisines of the world. There are over 3000 islands in the Caribbean and every one makes their jerk chicken differently. I think that’s wonderful. And that’s where the thinking behind the brand and the focus of our business is now.

Tell me about your restaurant, Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse? 

We’ve just opened our first ‘Rasta-rant’ in Westfield in East London and the dream for us now is to expand. For food in any cuisine to grow, restaurants are key. That’s how chicken tikka masala became Britain’s favourite dish; it started off in small takeaways and then was served in restaurants, where people could enjoy the dish with friends and family. For me, I want to help get Caribbean food to another level with a chain of my own Levi Roots restaurants.

Away from the food, I’m writing a musical score for a theatre play based around Thomas Sankara [a Marxist revolutionary who seized power and became president of Burkina Faso in 1983] and I’m very excited about that.

I’ve also just completed my first acting role in [BBC television series] Death in Paradise. It was very small role but, for the first time, I’m playing someone other than Levi Roots. And I’m the guy who says to be yourself! But I enjoyed it so much.

Has acting always been a long-term ambition for you – something to join your passions for food and music? 

I wouldn’t say it’s a long-held ambition of mine, but I would like to do more. I see it as another challenge. I love to challenge myself. That’s why, when my kids said to me, ‘Dad, don’t do Dragons’ Den, you’ll embarrass us with that bloody guitar and that song. It’s a show all about business and enterprise’, but I said to them, ‘I’m just going to be me, I’m not going to go in, put the guitar down, talk like Prince Charles and pretend to be someone else. I’m going as your father’, and I think that’s what made the Dragons invest.

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